Bonfires, bloody sacrifices, high priests and communing with the dead in no way resemble the children and candy of American Halloween, but that’s where the holiday’s roots lie.
The word “Halloween” comes from “All Hallow Even” or the eve of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1). All Souls’ Day follows on Nov. 2, the last of the three days in the Christian calendar intended to honor the saints and the newly departed.
All Saints’ and All Souls’ days have Christian origins and are of great importance in the Catholic tradition throughout the world. Halloween is often believed to come from pagan ritual and can be traced to the Celtic celebration of Simhain, meaning “summer’s end.”
Nicholas Rogers, the author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, wrote that the Celts celebrated their new year on Nov. 1, the day the harvest ended and winter began. The night before was regarded as a highly supernatural time when the ghosts of the dead could return to earth. The Celts believed that the dark forces bringing decay came forth from the surrounding countryside on the night of Oct. 31.
Rogers wrote that the Druids, the Celtic priests, led in the burning of huge bonfires and attempts at communing with the spirits in order to hear prophecy. Historians suspect that animal sacrifices were made in order to appease the malevolent forces. Celts participating in the rituals likely dressed in costumes made from animal skins in order to ward off evil spirits, and they practiced divination.
According to the History Channel’s Web site, when the Romans conquered what is present-day Ireland, the rituals of Samhain may have merged with the feast of Pomona, the goddess of seeds, and Parentalia, a festival of the dead. The Romans also honored the passing of the dead with a day in late October known as Feralia.
All Saints’ Day seems to have emerged from the continued observance of celebrations honoring the dead in the formerly pagan nations of northern Europe. Various churches began to establish festivals in the same vein as Simhain and Parentalia as early as the seventh century.
The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Pope Boniface IV first established a Catholic tradition of commemorating the saints with his dedication of the Pantheon in Rome to honor the blessed virgin and all martyrs in 609 A.D. The holiday occurred in May until Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of all saints on Nov. 1 sometime in the 730s A.D.
Pope Gregory IV officially authorized the custom of All Saints’ Day in the 830s A.D., ordering its observance on Nov. 1, perhaps in an effort to supersede the pagan traditions still present in Europe.
The day following became known as All Souls’ Day and shifted the focus to friends and family who had passed away. It is believed that some time in the 700s A.D., monks dedicated mass on Nov. 2 to remind those in attendance to pray for relatives in purgatory, a transitional point between death and the final resting place.
Traditions observed today often include rituals intended to help the wandering spirits of the deceased find their way home.
Giuseppe Leporace, of the French and Italian studies department, said that in Italy, All Saints’ and All Souls’ days are a considered a time of mourning, when people go to cemeteries to visit their dear ones.
“It is a time of the renewal of the pain,” he said of the Italian traditions. “We tend not to eat. We don’t celebrate. We cry, we pull our hair out.”
The traditions of Halloween, All Saints’ and All Souls’ days came to America with European immigrants. Observance and celebration were limited to ghost stories, pranks and the practice of old superstitions until the 19th century.
The sudden increase in immigration to the United States, particularly from Ireland, created a population with common traditions that quickly established the customs we have today.
The English and Irish traditions of dressing in costumes, a lingering Celtic tradition, caught on and children began to ask for money or food at neighbors’ homes. Trick-or-treating caught on quickly, and with the wild success of the chocolate and candy industry in the United States, treats overshadowed tricks as the focus of Halloween.
In the late 1800s, superstitions began to fade and acts of vandalism associated with the night increased. At the turn of the century, a movement started to redefine the holiday as something more community-oriented, and Halloween parties grew in popularity.
Many U.S. cities started hosting Halloween parades, helping to establish it as a secular and nationally observed holiday. Halloween has become the second-most-profitable commercial holiday with almost $7 billion spent on decorations, costumes, candy and other knickknacks.
Leporace said American Halloween is about community and children.
“It’s rare to see kids in the street knocking on people’s doors unannounced,” he said. “We usually live separate, but [Halloween] is a time when everyone is expected.”
Other countries without long-standing Halloween traditions have recently begun adopting those of the U.S.
“Halloween really isn’t a big deal in Australia,” said Daniela Rossi, who is an exchange student from Melbourne. “It’s not a native holiday, but since we consume so much American media it is familiar to us.”
Rossi, a junior who will be celebrating her first Halloween in the U.S., said she is looking forward to dressing up, but misses being able to go out with friends (the drinking age in Australia is 18) and walk around the city at 3 a.m. in costume.
“If it is celebrated at all, it’s pretty much just by kids and university students,” she said, calling it just another excuse to have a party or go out.
Reach contributing writer Kirsten Soelling at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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